April 27, 2009
In the Introduction to "Lies in the Service of Evil," I wrote:
I have discussed the subject of torture at great length, and descriptions of the individual entries in my series, On Torture, will be found at the conclusion of this post. Very often, I dealt with what properly should be an extraordinarily disturbing topic in dispassionate, calm tones. But, and I must emphasize this point once more, that is a large part of the problem: we must never forget what torture actually is. An enormous amount of research and study definitively establishes that all the supposed rationalizations for torture are simply that: not one of them stands up to rigorous scrutiny. All of them have been disproven time and again. (See my full series for further details.) With regard to the primary justification, we know that torture does not lead to useful or accurate intelligence, and that other, humane methods of interrogation are infinitely more reliable. If one's goal, in fact, is the acquisition of information that will lead to the saving of innocent lives, torture is without question not the way to obtain it. That fact alone leads to only one conclusion: the motives that in fact lead people to endorse even the very "limited" use of torture are not ones they care to identify or have known. In some form, they are aware of the deformity of their own souls, and they endlessly seek to hide it from themselves -- and from others.Toward the conclusion of the same essay, after a lengthy analysis of the lies, distortions and fallacies attendant upon the utterly invalid "ticking bomb" scenario, and following discussion of numerous other issues related to the immense evil of torture, I said this:
Given these basic facts, I stand by the description of torture I have provided before:
Torture is the deliberate infliction of unbearable agony on a human being -- a human being who is intentionally kept alive precisely so that he will suffer still more and for a longer period of time -- for no justifiable reason. This is the embrace of sadism and cruelty for their own sake, and for no other end whatsoever.It is immensely difficult to keep the full scope of the monstrousness, inhumanity and evil represented by torture in mind. Yet we must struggle to do precisely this, and we must do so all the time when discussing this subject. It is not acceptable, it is not civilized, and it is not decent to analyze whether and in what fashion one should inflict agonizing pain on another human being for its own sake in the manner of desiccated bureaucrats, utterly devoid of feeling and compassion.
The crucial point is Foucault's. Let me rephrase it as follows, in connection with torture specifically.In looking over that article from two and a half years ago, I find a few formulations that I now consider somewhat imprecise, together with certain points of focus in my argument that, with the acquisition of further knowledge and understanding, I would slightly alter. But with regard to all the essential and most significant points, I stand by everything I wrote.
Torture does not work. Its use permanently damages all those who are tortured, and those who administer the violence. Its "lawful" use profoundly undermines the broader society and democratic institutions in ways that are irreparable. But its persistent, ineradicable failure is entirely irrelevant for those who seek to consolidate and expand state power. Moreover, its inherent failure underscores their aim: it does not work, everyone knows it does not work, but the state does it because it can.
In this view, power is all, and power is its own justification. It is a simple truth, and a terrible one.
At present, we are in the midst of a heated debate over whether and to what extent the crimes committed by the Bush administration should be investigated; over what means would be best employed if it is determined that an investigation should proceed, and which particular individuals should ultimately be prosecuted, if any. Considering the above excerpts from my earlier analysis of this subject, my own view on this question might surprise you: Given the prevailing realities of American politics and culture, I am unalterably and unequivocally opposed to investigation and prosecution of these monstrous crimes.
I would hope that regular readers of this blog might grasp at least some of the reasons for my position. Yet I recognize that these issues are complex, and that certain of the connections involved are not readily apparent. Therefore, I will present my argument in detail. On a number of points, I will provide links to earlier essays that offer fuller presentations of particular issues. Read in conjunction with the present essay, the earlier articles will offer a more detailed case for my position. But I also understand that many readers do not have the time and/or interest to spend the required time on study of this kind, so I will provide key excerpts from previous articles in what follows. This pattern is similar to the one I employed in "Lies in the Service of Evil," which excerpted the "On Torture" essays, while adding new observations and exploring further connections. Similarly, this new piece will try to add some new pieces to this puzzle, especially as this subject becomes intertwined with the phenomenon of tribalism that I am exploring. (Links to the first four installments of the tribalism series will be found here.)
As I contemplate the continuing crackup of the American State and the American imperial project, a disintegration that occurs with a rapidity and comprehensiveness that few would have predicted as recently as a decade ago, it often occurs to me that we are to be spared nothing. On the domestic front, the authoritarian-surveillance state continues to expand its reach, destroying what small vestiges remain of the foundation of liberty identified by Brandeis, "the right to be let alone -- the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men." (In addition to the more recognized forms of the authoritarian-surveillance state, please always keep in mind other programs that escape notice and comment almost entirely. The InfraGard program is a prime example of what I mean; I still see almost no discussion anywhere of that monstrosity.) Simultaneously, the United States descends into unapologetic, full-fledged oligarchy-kleptocracy, as monumental debt piles up higher and higher, ensuring that this and future generations will be reduced to a desperate hope that a lifetime of debt servitude will be the worst fate to befall them.
Given the scope of these gathering catastrophes, one might think that those who direct and implement the American imperial project would at least momentarily consider adopting aims somewhat more modest than global hegemony maintained by a worldwide empire of bases. Of course, one would be gravely mistaken. No less an authority on the liberal-progressive mindset than Media Matters informs us, in its typically exhausting tone of outraged moral indignation, that certain conservatives are vicious liars when they accuse the Obama administration of wishing to cut military spending. Oh, no! yelps Media Matters. The Great White Hope -- and the emphasis is on White and don't you forget it, although most people never understood this in the first place, which ignorance constitutes a major part of the diseased heart of Obama's evil genius -- is increasing military spending:
Summary: Sean Hannity falsely asserted that the Obama administration "is taking steps to cut defense spending." In fact, the administration's proposed 2010 budget would increase funding for the Defense Department and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by billions of dollars.In the manner of a proud parent boasting of the thoroughly admirable tendencies of its homicidal offspring, as the parent joyously contemplates the countless murders yet to come, Media Matters proclaims:
Rather than cut overall defense spending, the fiscal year 2010 budget recommendations "reshape the priorities of America's defense establishment," in Defense Secretary Robert Gates' words. Gates' recommendations include full funding for the growth of the U.S. military force and a shift in funds to what Gates believes are the "programs that are most needed today and most likely needed in the future." From an April 6 Defense Department press release:Over two years ago, in writing about the alleged necessity for a "bigger military" insisted upon by almost all politicians and commentators at every point in the political spectrum, I observed:
The secretary's recommendations will eliminate some high-cost, under-performing programs, but will "fully protect and properly fund" the growth in the Army and Marine Corps and halt reductions in the Navy and Air Force, Gates said.
[This] is also one of the clearest proofs of one of my general themes: in terms of fundamentals, there is no difference at all between Republicans and Democrats in the realm of foreign policy. Both parties, our governing elites, and most bloggers all hold the same unchallengeable axiom: that the United States is and should be the unequaled, supreme power in the world, with the capability of directing events across the globe and intervening wherever and whenever we deem it necessary for our "national interests." As [Christopher] Layne notes, all our prominent national voices are united in their conviction that no other state "entertain the 'hope of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States.'" Military power on a scale never before seen in world history is the most certain means of ensuring that goal.As I have discussed at great length, torture represents an immense evil. Yet the current obsessive focus on torture constitutes only another facet of the same overall pathology. In the manner of a Lady Macbeth compulsively washing her hands, almost all of our ruling class and those who support them believe that if only they can remove this single "damn'd spot," all of their and America's sins will thus be purified. As with Lady Macbeth, this is the route to a final, irrevocable break with reality, and to ultimate destruction.
I will be blunt: I submit that, considering these facts and the staggering reach of our global military power, any relatively sane person ought to be aghast that our governing class, together with almost every pundit and blogger, will look at these same facts and say only: "More, please!" But this is the inevitable result for a people who are entirely comfortable with the fact that their nation dominates the world, and of their belief that it does so by right.
According to this worldview, we are the world's sole superpower, and we should be. We are morally entitled to dictate events around the world, and we are right to have our way. And that is the actual root of almost all the current complaints about the parlous state of Iraq: we have not successfully had our way. This failure, made before the entire world, damages our "credibility," and it lessens our influence. Such an outcome is impermissible for our governing class, and for those who support it. Moral considerations find no place in these calculations.
We have power undreamt of in world history -- but our governing elites can never have enough. Our strategy of global dominance causes untold human suffering, it severely (and probably permanently) undermines our economic well-being and causes profound economic dislocation, it increases the threats we face -- and they still can never have enough. After the Iraq catastrophe, one would think that a reassessment of this strategy would be a minimal requirement. But our elites do not agree: we must increase our military budget, and increase the size of our military -- and everyone applauds the further increase of our already immense power.
Occasionally, I have referred to the phenomenon of pathology as foreign policy. When one contemplates these facts, it is very hard to conclude that anything other than pathology is involved. Our strategy is indefensible, irrational and immensely destructive, and yet almost no one questions it. But this particular pathology is so inextricably woven into our myths about the United States and about ourselves as Americans, that we believe this is simply "the way things are," and the way things ought to be.
For close to none of our politicians and almost none of our prominent national voices will offer a serious challenge to the view that America is entitled by right to be God on Earth. In the context of this pervasive national denial of the truth of the American State and its explicitly proclaimed goal of worldwide dominance, the preoccupation with torture is another manifestation of the identical denial, just as it profoundly misidentifies the nature of the evil involved and reverses cause and effect. For torture is not some aberrational addition to the American polity; it is not a localized barnacle that can be scraped off an otherwise strong and healthy hull.
The truth is precisely the opposite: Torture is an inevitable and necessary part of the American project as envisioned and directed by the ruling class. The American government's systematic use of torture long predated the Bush administration, just as America's foreign policy of endless, aggressive intervention abroad took shape over more than a century, often most zealously directed by Democrats prior to the arrival of the detestable Bush. And more than this, and as we shall shortly see, torture was a foundational element of the American State itself. (On the bipartisan roots and development of America's foreign policy of worldwide hegemony, see my "Dominion Over the World" series, and Parts III and VI, in particular. And progressives might pay special attention to Part VIII, for some "unwelcome history." Links to all the installments will be found at the conclusion of Part IX.)
But our ruling class and those who call for anything less than the most radical of reforms refuse to acknowledge any of this. By seeking to localize the evil in only one aspect of the much broader and more fundamental evil involved and within a falsely delimited period of time, the torture obsessives would thus whitewash the American project as a whole. And until our foreign policy of the last hundred years is uprooted entirely, torture will never be eliminated. As I have analyzed in detail (in particular, see "Cui Bono? -- and Bush's Monstrous, Deadly Dare," with special attention to the "dare" part of that discussion), the primary objection to the vile reign of Bush, to the extent such objection made itself known, was not to the substance of his foreign policy or to the nature of his actions. The rejection of Bush arose because Bush and his fellow criminals committed the one unforgivable sin: they stated explicitly, without apology and in an especially crude way what America's goals and methods had been all along. This cannot be allowed; "our" sort of people just don't do this sort of thing, after all. America's genocidal murderers are nothing if not well-mannered.
So the selective pursuit and possible prosecution of a few of those who devised, directed and implemented the U.S. torture policies, but only those of recent vintage and not any of those that went before or are yet to come, will conveniently provide the United States with a clean slate upon which to write new chapters of crime. And to those who insist that we must pursue investigations because they may finally allow the entire web of evil to be unraveled, I can only say that such people ought to grow up one of these days. Short of massive, sustained civil unrest, even of the nonviolent kind, the ruling class will not allow it. When in the history of humankind has a ruling class, particularly one which has amassed to itself the kind of power now enjoyed by the American elites, ever fundamentally reformed itself and relinquished a significant part of the power it has obtained through many decades of unrelenting, diligent effort? Only if you answer, "Never," are you correct.
We will examine all these issues in more detail. For now, keep in mind the nightmare vision of Lady Macbeth in the last stages before her final destruction. Tragically, we must revise even Shakespeare's powerful imagination. For our Lady Macbeth is not yet a pathetically broken, largely helpless figure, moaning and whimpering as madness consumes her.
No, the Lady Macbeth of our time -- a figure who ought to terrify you to the roots of your being -- is very different from that. For America today is broken, but she refuses to acknowledge it. In addition, and this is where the terror takes root, she possesses the most fearsome arsenal of weaponry ever seen in history.
This, then, is the waking nightmare that confronts us: America is a hollowed-out hag desperately trying to maintain a fragile, weakening toehold on sanity -- a vicious fury, with nukes.